Ultimately I come to praise Torii Hunter, not bury him.
When Torii Hunter signed a two-year/$26MM deal to kick the off-season free agent market into gear it was met by solid reviews from most quarters, myself included. Hunter was well known to Tigers observers due to his long career as part of AL Central-winning Minnesota Twins ball clubs that had their way with the Tigers quite often. Hunter then went to Los Angeles and continued his successful career after signing his new deal at a Del Taco in California.
Hunter hit the free agent market at a decent time. Despite his advanced baseball age of 37 he was coming off a very good season that saw him post a slash-line of .313/.365/.461, not a line you can find available on the market all the time that doesn't even require draft compensation in return. Hunter's efforts were also good for a 5.1 fWAR due to his still solid defense being judged as worth over 11 runs in value at Fangraphs as a right-fielder.
Of course Hunter's fine season in 2012 stood in contrast to what the Tigers had received from the right-field post the prior two seasons. While the club stood up to poor production from the corner outfield spot by winning the AL Central in both seasons, the efforts of Brennan Boesch, and Magglio Ordonez before him, were enough to set the Tigers looking for an upgrade. Boesch and Ordonez were the primary operatives in right-field in '11 and '12 and posted these lines:
Ordonez in '11: .255/.303/.331 (-1.2 fWAR, -6.7 runs defensively)
Boesch in '12: .240/.286/.372 (-1.4 fWAR, -11.8 runs defensively)
Contrast those numbers with Hunter's final season in Anaheim and it's easy to see why the Tigers were looking to invest. The good news for Tigers GM David Dombrowski is that, as has been well documented, Hunter wanted to be a Tiger and actually initiated the conversation. Things moved swiftly and Hunter signed very quickly once free agency kicked off in November.
What did the Tigers buy? What can they expect over the two-year duration of Hunter's deal? How is he evolving as a player on the field? (Hunter's clubhouse reputation seems nearly untouchable and well-regarded. I won't attempt to quantify it because I'm in Iowa and not in that clubhouse. If you believe in "leadership" and "chemistry", Hunter is your guy by all accounts. This is a good thing. I'm not saying it's unimportant. You'd rather have good guys around to work with after all. The whispers of the fight in the Minnesota clubhouse with Justin Morneau seem to have been mostly forgotten...except by me evidently!)
Let's fast forward to the present day. Hunter has jumped out to a very quality start for the Tigers. He was red hot in early April punching balls through opposing infields seemingly at will combining with an equally hot start by leadoff man Austin Jackson to form a potent combination in front of Miguel Cabrera. With the conclusion of Cleveland series on Sunday, Hunter's line stood at .336/.375/.441 and his defense has seemed very solid (a poor throw that cost the Tigers a run on Sunday notwithstanding). Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are both on track to clear 150 RBI at this time and that is due, in no small part, to Torii Hunter's presence in the lineup.
How is Hunter doing it? Let's do a dive into the numbers we have so far this year and the numbers from his solid season in 2012 to get a sense where the 37-year old is heading and what observers might be seeing over the remainder of his deal. Can we expect what we've seen last season and so far this year to continue?
I like looking at trends of a few key factors. I look at K-rate, BB-rate, Isolate Power (ISO), and the slash-line. It's also interesting to look for any noticeable spikes in Line Drive Rate, Groundball Rate, and Flyball Rate. (I don't do any regression analysis or feed the numbers into a computer trying to do any kind of calculations. Lots of talented folks have time and ability to do that. I look. I think. I write. The "think" part may be questionable but it is what it is.)
Before we poke around those numbers, let's dispense with defense first. Hunter appears to be in fantastic condition and seems to be moving fairly smoothly in right-field. He may not have the fantastic skills he flashed in his Minnesota days, but you can see the Tigers have a professional defender shoring up their previous defensive trouble spot. Simply put, Hunter could lose vision in one eye plus develop a bad case of gout and I'd still be more confident in his ability to track down balls that Boesch loped after last year. I also felt Ordonez gave his all in the field but he was also a net minus. We won't be seeing that from Hunter.
When looking at Hunter's batting statistics so far, I'm drawn immediately to his K-rate and his BB-rate and what they've been doing. Hunter is down to a walk-rate of 4.8%, a career low. Probably not coincidently in the data Fangraphs shows since 2007, Hunter is swinging at his highest number of pitches outside the strike zone (40.7%) and offering at his highest percentage of all pitches in that time (55.9%). Hunter's walk rate in 2012 had cratered as well to a very low 6.5% despite his solid season. Is this further deterioration in his walk-rate in 2013 a bad sign? Or is it just statistical noise? Let's look further.
Last season Hunter's strikeout rate also jumped to a career high of 22.8% and, to be honest, coupled with his walk-rate nosediving I found these numbers to be the biggest eyebrow raisers immediately after the signing. Strikeouts up and walks down doesn't seem like the ingredients to permanently fuel the kind of productive year Hunter had last year. However so far in 2013 in 152 Plate Appearances he has drastically cut his K-rate to what would be a career low, if he can sustain it, of 13.6%. Hunter isn't walking so far this season but he is also putting the ball in play a lot. What is that contact producing?
So far...quite a bit. Hunter's BABIP right now sits at .388 nearly identical to his amazing career high .389 he posted in 2012. (Hunter has a career BABIP of .309 with a previous high of .336 in 2000 prior to last season) Posting these high BABIPs seems to be a new skill. Or is it a skill? This is where you can tick off a lot of folks. Many seem to bristle at "luck" being a factor. Hunter is hitting .333 on grounders so far this year after posting .327 in 2012 on ground balls. It should be pointed out that many hitters struggle to clear .250 on grounders and Hunter is a career .262 hitter when the ball is not elevated. At his age, why have ground balls suddenly become his primary weapon and how is he finding so many holes? Does he have a new ability to steer grounders into holes that he developed these last two seasons? Or is he simply on an amazing run of good fortune that may or may not continue?
Hunter is hitting the ball on the ground 57% of the time so far in Detroit. A career high rate. (He went over 50% for the first time last year) Usually I would say this run of success of these grounders being productive would come to an end and is "grounded" in a healthy dose of luck. However the longer it continues, it's easier to wonder if he simply has changed his approach the last two seasons and he can continue to make a living with the ball skipping on terra firma consistently. The answer, unfortunately, sits in the future. We will just have to see if this is sustainable. My guess, if you forced me to make one, might be no. But it's a guess like anyone's would be.
Let's cut to the chase. Power. I like extra-base hits. They decide games. You can have your "moving the runner over" and "playing the right way"...it's all fine. There is nothing wrong with that stuff. But balls hit off of, or over, fences swing ball games a lot faster. Hunter has seen his power diminish substantially each season since 2009. It's to the point that I have very limited expectations that a power surge is looming from Hunter. His Isolated Power sits at a puny .105 after posting a full-season .139 in 2012. This year's number would be a career low by a wide margin and last year's was a low since he was breaking in during the early 200's. Hunter did turn on, and crush, a massive bomb in Oakland for his only homer this year against Brett Anderson. So there is still some thunder looming but we've seen less and less each of the last four seasons via ISO. This is probably expected as he enters his late 30's.
Where is this all going? His power is down. He is walking less and swinging at more bad pitches out of the zone than ever. The ball is being put in play a lot and, for now, his strike-out rate is quite low. He is finding a ton of holes via the ground ball. Hitting out of the 2-hole he has been getting plenty of important at-bats after Jackson and in front of Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Hunter is very solid defensively. Who does he remind me of right now? My mind keeps going back to the 2007/2008 version of Placido Polanco. High BA, low walk, low power, put the ball in play, and handy with the glove. I really think this is where Hunter's immediate future is heading. If you look back in 2007 you see Polanco's slash-line of .341/.388/.458 and he followed up in 2008 with .307/.350/.417. Hunter's current slash-line mirrors Polanco's huge season in '07 fairly well and I could easily see Hunter posting a line similar to Polly's '08 season for the remainder of this campaign and next. Hunter is morphing into that kind of hitter and he's showing the ability to flourish in this style. I simply question if there is more power left to be mined on a consistent basis. Maybe he will have that surge as the weather warms up but his current career trend makes me want to bet against that. This is all okay. The 2007/2008 version of Placido Polanco was a valuable guy to have around.
Torii Hunter is an exceedingly fun player to watch. You can see the joy on his face and the energy he brings. Hunter has shown the ability to stay healthy and be a durable presence in the lineup throughout his career. He patches a gaping defensive chasm the club had in right-field. His current level of production is probably ideal for setting up the big bats behind him. The only question now is how the continuing change in his skill set evolves from this point. Can he continue to hit the ball the other way and on the ground to find holes consistently to get himself on base as a batting average-dependent hitter? Will his walk-rate climb north to help a little? If his ability to find all the holes with ground balls start to diminish, will any of his old power re-emerge over the rest of his deal in Detroit? We don't know the answer to these questions.
However we can be pretty sure that the Tigers made themselves better the day they signed Torii Hunter. They had a need and he filled it. They took on a short commitment to a durable player who had a skill set to fill some shortcomings on their roster. With no young players truly ready for the role and a club built to contend now, it was a solid bet to take Hunter into the fold despite some of his offensive skills being in a state of change from the more powerful "old Torii" of earlier in his career.